Amarillo College shares Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 20, 2023 — In 2021, when the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program christened Amarillo College a Rising Star, it could only speculate that AC’s ascendancy would continue, that the Rising Star might one day eclipse the stratosphere.

There’s no question now that it has.

Amarillo College today was named co-recipient of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s signature recognition of high achievement and performance among America’s community colleges.

Amarillo College joins California’s Imperial Valley Community College in the winner’s circle; they are the Top Community Colleges in America – bar none. The winners were ultimately selected for the nation’s top honor from a pool of more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide.

Having co-recipients of the Aspen Prize, which has been awarded every other year since 2011, is not unprecedented; co-recipients shared the top award once previously – in 2019.

AC President Russell Lowery-Hart was in attendance for the announcement, which took place during at an exuberant midday ceremony in Washington D.C.

“What an amazing, exhilarating and truly humbling honor this is,” Lowery-Hart said. “My gratitude is so profound. This recognition validates the decisive leadership of our Board of Regents and the painstaking efforts of our faculty and staff, each of whom have ceaselessly striven to love our students to success.

“Community colleges are the glue that holds our communities together, and we believe that our constituents deserve the best, so it is beyond gratifying to be able to present them with the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

“It is an awesome national endorsement of AC’s mission to transform our community and economy through learning, innovation, and achievement,” he said, “one to be shared by all of us who make the Texas Panhandle our home.”

This year's winners both serve large rural areas with high rates of poverty and low rates of educational attainment. These challenges make their achievements in graduation rates and post-graduation success for students especially notable:

  • Amarillo and Imperial Valley are among the nation’s fastest-improving community colleges, achieving 8 and 12 percentage point improvements (respectively) in graduation rates over just four years, far exceeding improvements nationally.

With a singular focus on student success, the Aspen Prize honors colleges with outstanding achievement in five critical areas: teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor’s attainment, workforce success, and equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

Just a few years ago, AC established a nationally recognized Culture of Caring to support students to success. Through data-supported intentional actions, the College has addressed student-defined needs, eliminated barriers, and loved students to success – a great many of them. AC has increased its three-year completion rates across all the demographics Aspen measures, and the same can be said for transfer rates and bachelor’s degree attainment.

“We know that students enroll in college for one reason above all others: to get a good job,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “For community college students, there are two ways to achieve that goal. Either a workforce credential that helps them land a good job right away, or an associate degree that prepares them to transfer and earn a bachelor’s.

“What’s so amazing about these winners is how clearly they hold those goals as the top priority. Amarillo and Imperial Valley are changing lives by getting students not just to completion, but set up for life-long success.”

The Aspen Prize is an extraordinary capstone to a phenomenal year for AC, which has launched significant initiatives and achieved unprecedented milestones that align closely with Aspen Prize criteria.

Some of AC’s foremost accomplishments since being named a Rising Star in 2021 are:

  • For the first time in its history, AC received a rare perfect score during reaffirmation of its accreditation (by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges). The committee not only had zero recommendations for full compliance, but it wholeheartedly endorsed AC’s Quality Enhancement Plan, the cornerstone of the reaccreditation effort.

  • Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board singled out AC’s Quality Enhancement Plan for a prestigious Star Award, which essentially is the gold standard of laurels earmarked for post-secondary schools in Texas. The innovative AC program aligns developmental courses with credit-bearing courses so that underprepared students can be placed simultaneously in both, earn transferable credit hours, and thus achieve success at a significantly faster pace.

  • AC introduced a virtual healthcare plan called TimelyCare, and the service is not only accessible to all students who are enrolled in academic classes – and their dependents – but it is free, and it provides basic physical and mental healthcare 24 hours a day in several different languages.

  • The College has developed Business Leadership Councils to align curriculums with business and industry needs and thus produce a skilled talent pipeline for the regional workforce.

The 2023 Aspen Prize selection process began in October 2021, when an expert data panel guided the Aspen Institute in crafting a formula to assess student outcomes at nearly 1,000 community colleges in key areas such as retention, completion, and equity. Based on that formula, 150 top community colleges were invited to apply. A selection committee of 16 higher education experts reviewed 109 submitted applications and chose ten finalists in May 2022, following the announcement of 25 semifinalists in April 2022.

About Amarillo College

Amarillo College, which was founded in Amarillo, Texas in 1929, typically enrolls about 9,000 students at seven campuses in three Texas Panhandle counties. About half of AC’s students are of color. President Lowery-Hart is known for his student-centered commitment to “loving students to success” – which means a dedication to not just supporting students’ basic needs but their academic needs too. For example, Amarillo has created clear pathways to the degrees it offers and ensures that students make it to graduation by offering comprehensive and pervasive academic tutoring with proven success. The result of these and other field-leading practices is not only nation-leading improvements in graduation rates, but also highly effective workforce education programs in both traditional fields such as nursing and emerging fields such as cybersecurity.